(Sen) - Having completed a number of successful test flights, SpaceX's Dragon is due to blast into orbit on October 7 to make the first commercial delivery of supplies to the International Space Station.
The target date has been announced by NASA and Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) following a successful berthing of an earlier Dragon with the orbiting outpost in May on a demonstration mission.
October's cargo flight will be the first of 12 under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA and will mark the first time that supplies have been flown from the US since the retirement of the Space Shuttle.
Launch of the Dragon, atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for 8.34pm EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. If launch conditions are unfavourable, there will be a second opportunity the next day.
Assuming launch goes ahead on October 7, NASA's ISS Expedition Commander Sunita Williams and Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will use a robot arm to grapple the Dragon after it makes its rendezvous with the station on October 10.
They will attach the Dragon to the Earth-facing port of the space station's Harmony module for a few weeks while crew members unload cargo and load samples of completed experiments for return to Earth. The spacecraft will then undock in late October to splashdown in the Pacific off southern California.
The cargo being carried to the space station will weigh around 1,000 pounds and include vital material for 166 experiments that the Expedition 33 crew on the ISS aim to carry out. These include plant cell biology, human biotechnology and demonstrations of other technologies.
An experiment called Micro 6 will look at how the Candida albicans yeast that lives on all humans reacts to microgravity. Another, called Resist Tubule, will examine how microgravity affects cell-wall growth in a plant called Arabidopsis.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 on the launchpad in a rehearsal for next month's flight. Credit: NASA
Scientists know that about 50 per cent of energy used by plants on Earth is used to give themselves support to overcome the pull of gravity. They want to know more about this as part of learning how to modify plants genetically in future to boost the food supply.
The Micro 6 and Resist Tubule experiments will both be brought back by the Dragon at the end of its mission for examination by scientists back on the ground.
Before the May mission, only NASA, Russia, Japan and ESA had sent spacecraft to the ISS. SpaceX aims eventually to launch astronauts for NASA, taking over from the recently retired space shuttles.
The Dragon is the only cargo ship that can splash down intact. Others from Russia, Japan and Europe burn up in the atmosphere. Next week, ESA’s ATV Edoardo Amaldi will undock from the ISS and be destroyed in a fireball after a successful six-month mission.